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Scott Howard-Cooper

The Lakers' Andrew Bynum is carving out an early-season niche in the team's offense.
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Still-growing Bynum gives Lakers a limitless future

Posted Nov 13 2009 10:40AM

The Andrew Bynum progression chart is a roller-coaster diagram. Great expectations as the No. 10 pick in 2005 and the youngest player to ever get in an NBA game, only to spend that rookie campaign out of the Lakers rotation. Substantial forward movement his third season, only to hurt his left knee and miss the final 46 games and L.A.'s run to the Finals. A recovery his fourth season, 2008-09, to the top 10 in the league in shooting and blocks at age 20, only to hurt his right knee and miss 32 games.

So of course nothing is going to be conventional with the Bynum of 2009-10. He is back, again, and constantly improving, still, and even an early favorite for a spot on the Western Conference All-Star team at center. A very good preseason followed by a very good first six games that count, with two others lost to a strained elbow and sore triceps before returning Thursday night with 26 points and 15 rebounds against the Suns. But:

The Lakers have proven they essentially don't need him to win.

Bynum was still recovering from a torn knee ligament last spring, he averaged 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in the playoffs, and L.A. faced the planet's best center (Dwight Howard) in The Finals. All that, and still a parade.

Plus, Pau Gasol, ideally a power forward but the center in a Bynum-less lineup, is an established star and a perfect component for the triangle offense. Gasol, not Bynum, is a documented difference maker.

How strange, then, early in this season. Bynum continues to grow into a force and he is firmly entrenched in the system, somehow already in his fifth season in time-flies perspective. Yet it is Bynum who must fit in with the team that won 65 games last season while he missed 40 percent of the action. The same team that won the title while he logged just 17.4 minutes in the postseason and 22, 16, 23, 16 and 17 minutes in the L.A.'s five Finals games.

Bynum disagrees -- "No, I don't need to prove that I can fit in at all. I think I've already proved that. Coming back off the injury, I had [four] games ... to get ready for the playoffs. It's tough. You've got to get back in rhythm and everybody else is at the highest level. It's natural, I think, to go out there and struggle a little bit. I was happy that I was able to contribute what little I did -- try to defend Howard, use my fouls, help earn us a ring. I just can't wait to get back there in the playoffs this year, because hopefully I'm healthy and I'll be able to contribute."

But also still to be determined, even after all these years, is another important issue: How can Bynum and Gasol share the court when they both work best inside and need (and deserve) the ball on the block. After all, out of a possible 161 games in the regular season and playoffs since Gasol arrived in a February 2008 trade, the two have played together 72 times. Twenty-seven of those games were with Bynum getting sporadic minutes last season following the April 9 return from a second knee major knee injury.

What endless possibilities. All rich with drama, naturally, because that's how the Lakers do it. If Bynum and Gasol ever get a couple months together, really together, it could force both to make unwanted adjustments, while also making sure no one clogs the Kobe Bryant's lane to the basket. Or, in the obvious concern for the rest of the league, an entire season of health and growth for Bynum combined with the arrival of Ron Artest gives L.A. an entirely new power dimension that didn't exist last season.

"His teammates are going to find him," coach Phil Jackson said of Bynum. "And when you have a player like Kobe that draws the attention of two players, he's going to find Andrew. It's very hard to keep Andrew away from the basket. That's going to be a force to be reckoned with. Andrew's developed a lot of moves on his own and he has a desire to score, so he's going to score some points."

Bynum is at 21 points per game now, along with 11.3 rebounds and 58.4-percent shooting, so imagine what he could turn out to be.

And the 17.4 minutes in the playoffs, as he was trying to get back from the knee injury?

Bynum is at 39.3 an outing now.

"The knee's fine," he said. "I'm healthy this year. It's great to be able to say that. Hopefully I can stay that way. Shape wise, I feel like I can run with everybody. I'm trying to be ahead of the ball on both sides. For me, coming in lighter this year [has been a key]. I'm only 272. In previous years, I've been 285, 288. It's really helped to take load off my knees and I've picked up a little speed.

"My rookie season, I didn't play at all. I played 82 games once, but hit the rookie wall [as a second-year player]. And then I came back the third season and was ready, but got hurt and missed 40 games. Then the same thing happened last year. I think if I just stay healthy and stay playing at this level, everything will be fine."

Maybe for Bynum and the Lakers. Not so fine for everyone else.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.

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